Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale - Read Online
Red Fortress
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A magisterial, richly detailed history of the Kremlin, and of the centuries of Russian elites who have shaped it—and been shaped by it in turn

The Moscow Kremlin is the heart of the Russian state, a fortress whose blood-red walls have witnessed more than eight hundred years of political drama and extraordinary violence. It has been the seat of a priestly monarchy, a worldly church and the Soviet Union; it has served as a crossroads for diplomacy, trade, and espionage; it has survived earthquakes, devastating fires, and at least three revolutions. Its very name is a byword for enduring power. From Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin, generations of Russian leaders have sought to use the Kremlin to legitimize their vision of statehood.

Drawing on a dazzling array of sources from hitherto unseen archives and rare collections, renowned historian Catherine Merridale traces the full history of this enigmatic fortress. The Kremlin has inspired innumerable myths, but no invented tales could be more dramatic than the operatic successions and savage betrayals that took place within its vast compound of palaces and cathedrals. Today, its sumptuous golden crosses and huge electric red stars blaze side by side as the Kremlin fulfills its centuries-old role, linking the country's recent history to its distant past and proclaiming the eternal continuity of the Russian state.
More than an absorbing history of Russia's most famous landmark, Red Fortress uses the Kremlin as a unique lens, bringing into focus the evolution of Russia's culture and the meaning of its politics.

Published: Macmillan Publishers on
ISBN: 9780805098372
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Red Fortress - Catherine Merridale

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To Frank


Title Page

Copyright Notice



A Note on the Text


1. Foundation Stones

2. Renaissance

3. The Golden Palace

4. Kremlenagrad

5. Eternal Moscow

6. Classical Orders

7. Firebird

8. Nostalgia

9. Acropolis

10. Red Fortress

11. Kremlinology

12. Normality


Suggestions for Further Reading




About the Author

List of Illustrations


A Note on the Text

No one has yet found a universally accepted system for rendering Russia’s Cyrillic into clear Latin script. Academics tend to use precise but rather ugly systems, while everyone else gets by with an easier but more chaotic approach. In my text, I have used the simplest and most familiar-looking version I could find (which is why I have ended up with Trotsky rather than Trotskii or Trockij), but the endnotes follow the precepts of the Library of Congress, which is the best way to track Russian material through online catalogues.


The Kremlin is one of the most famous structures in the world. If states have trademarks, Russia’s could well be this fortress, viewed across Red Square. Everyone who comes to Moscow wants to see it, and everyone who visits seems to take a different view. ‘The only guarantee of a correct response is to choose your position before you come,’ wrote the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. ‘In Russia, you can only see if you have already decided.’ In 1927, his decision was to be enthralled.¹ A hundred years before, however, a Frenchman called the marquis de Custine had opted for a scandalized tirade. To him, the Kremlin was ‘a prop of tyrants’, a ‘satanic monument’, ‘a habitation that would suit some of the personages of the Apocalypse’. ‘Like the bones of certain gigantic animals,’ he concluded, ‘the Kremlin proves to us the history of a world of which we might doubt until after seeing the remains.’²

The site still mesmerizes foreign visitors. As the newspaper correspondent Mark Frankland once lamented, ‘there can be few other cities in the world where the feeling is so strong of being carried towards the centre whether one wants it or not.’³ ‘Do not forget that people went into some of those buildings and came out blinded,’ a British government interpreter reminded me.⁴ When it comes to falling for the magic of the place, however, no outsider competes with the Russians themselves. The Kremlin is the symbol of their nationhood.⁵ Its walls may not have managed to withstand invading hordes of Mongol horsemen, and they were later breached by Poles and even Frenchmen, but like Russia itself, the citadel endured. Most Russians know that it was here, outside the Kremlin gates, that Stalin reviewed the fresh Red Army troops as they marched off to fight and die in 1941. Less than four years later, in steady early summer rain, the same iconic walls and towers looked down on rank upon rank of marching men. As Marshal Zhukov struggled to control a tetchy thoroughbred horse, the banners of two hundred vanquished Nazi regiments were hurled on to the gleaming stones beside the steps of Lenin’s mausoleum. The country’s second capital, St Petersburg, may be an architectural miracle, but the Kremlin is Russia’s wailing wall.

The structure is not democratic. Built from specially hardened bricks, the walls of this red fortress were designed for war. Although they are so elegant that the fact is disguised, they are also exceptionally thick – honeycombed by a warren of stairs and corridors that feels like a city in itself – and in places they rise more than sixty feet above the surrounding land. The four main gates are made of ancient Russian oak, but their venerable iron locks have long been superseded by the pitiless systems of a digital age. Even now, the Kremlin is a military compound, managed by a person called the commandant, and its subterranean maze of tunnels and control-rooms is designed to survive a nuclear strike. There is no public access to the north-east quarter where the president’s building stands. On Thursdays, in a tradition that dates from the era of the Communist Politburo, the entire site is closed, and it is also sealed, these days, at the first whiff of public disorder. But beauty of the most transcendent kind has flourished in this atmosphere of menace. The Kremlin’s spired silhouette is crowned by its religious buildings, and the most entrancing of these are clustered like so many jewel-boxes round a single square. From almost any point on this historic ground, the eye will be drawn upwards from the white stones to an effulgence of coloured tile and on to the cascades of gilded domes that lead yet higher, up among the wheeling Moscow crows, to a dazzling procession of three-barred Orthodox crosses. The tallest towers are visible for miles around, standing white and gold above the city. Magnificent and lethal, holy and yet secretive, the fortress is indeed an incarnation of the legendary Russian state.

Its spell depends on an apparent timelessness. History is everywhere. The Dormition Cathedral, which is the oldest and most famous sacred building on the site, has witnessed every coronation since the days of Ivan the Terrible. Across the square, in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, most visitors can barely squeeze between the waist-high caskets that hold the remains of almost every Moscow prince from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In the reign of the last tsar, a nationalist court administration had forty-six of the carved stone coffins covered in uniform bronze casings, row upon sombre row, reinforcing the impression of unbroken lineage. By then the shifting of the capital to St Petersburg had long put an end to royal Kremlin burials, but the coronations continued until 1896, and each was followed by a banquet. The fifteenth-century Faceted Palace, where the royal diners gathered in a blaze of diamonds and gold, still graces the western margin of Cathedral Square. Towering behind it, the vast Grand Palace is a nineteenth-century pastiche, but anyone who ventures past the armed police will come upon the curving stair, mutely guarded by stone lions, that leads up to the older royal quarters and the churches that were carefully preserved within. Like Jerusalem, Rome, or Istanbul, the Kremlin is a place where history is concentrated, and every stone seems to embody several pasts. The effect is hypnotic.

It is also deliberately contrived. There is nothing accidental about the Kremlin’s current appearance, from the chaos of its golden roofline to the overwhelming mass of palaces and ancient walls. Someone designed these shapes to celebrate the special character of Russian culture, and someone else approved the plans to go on building in a style that would suggest historically rooted power. The ubiquitous gold, in Orthodox iconography, may be a reminder of eternity, but for the rest of us it is also an impressive reflection of earthly wealth. From the churches and forbidding gates to the familiar spires that are its emblem, the Kremlin is not merely home to Russia’s rulers. It is also a theatre and a text, a gallery that displays and embodies the current governing idea. That – and the incongruity of its survival in the heart of modern Moscow – has long been the secret of its magnetism.

I have been fascinated by the place since I first saw it three decades ago, and its story has seemed to acquire an ever-deeper resonance. A turning point came in 2007, towards the end of Vladimir Putin’s second four-year term as president, a time when the question of his future was beginning to preoccupy the Russian press. In true arch-nationalist style, his supporters had begun to justify an unconstitutional third term by drawing on the supposed lessons of the past. They argued that the Russian nation had endured because it followed special rules. The people suffered most when there was weakness at the heart of power. The national genius took a unique creative form, they said, and it could flourish only when it was protected by a strong and centralizing state. Obliging textbook-writers duly came up with historical proof. From Peter the Great to Stalin, and from the bigoted Alexander III to Putin himself, the past showed just why Russia still needed a firm governing hand. Even doubters were aware that the alternative was risky. Weak government was something every Russian knew about, for the most recent case had been Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s, a time of national humiliation and desperate human misery. The statist message therefore fell on willing ears. In a poll to find the greatest name in Russian history, organized by the Rossiya television channel in 2008, the implacably reactionary Nicholas I took an early lead, and Stalin followed close behind in second place.

The result came as no surprise to Russia-watchers in the west. If any-thing, there was a depressing inevitability about it, as if the country were indeed eternally marked out for tyranny. Outsiders had been saying as much for centuries. ‘The prince alone controls everything,’ a Jesuit envoy decided in the 1580s. ‘The deference accorded the Prince is something the mind can scarcely comprehend.’⁷ A succession of Englishmen who reported on Moscow in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I agreed.⁸ More than three hundred years later, when the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 turned into a dictatorship, expert onlookers were ready with a range of theories based on Russia’s special path.⁹ It was the same when the reforms of perestroika faltered under Gorbachev. As one political scientist put it at the time: ‘too much freedom makes many Russians feel uncomfortable.’¹⁰ This sort of commentary flatters western prejudice, which is why it has persisted through so many complete changes of regime. In the end, however, the idea that Russia has a special destiny has survived because it suits the government of Russia itself. As a recent book on the subject neatly stated, ‘the statist interpretation of Russian history is a justification for unaccountability and an absolution of past crimes’.¹¹ By using history, in the words of another writer, even the current government can ‘integrate itself with the traditions of the past’, casting the state itself as ‘a focus of social and private life, in a way an ultimate justification for the life of the individual’.¹²

The Kremlin is an ideal site from which to think about all this. It is a place where myths are born, the stage on which the Russian state parades its power and its pedigree. But the fortress is also a character in its own right. I set out to explore its past because I wanted to know more about the present day, but in the end I found myself absorbed in its biography. It is a tale where show and fable often triumph over substance, but it is also very much about real things. In writing it, I have had to think about the stories rulers tell about themselves, and I have also had to master subjects ranging from the ideology behind the coronation ritual to the intricacies of Orthodox Christian theology. At the same time, however, I have found myself reading about clock-mechanisms, cannon-foundries and the technicalities of restoring old plaster. The story covers many cultures and at least two continents. In tracing it, I have looked to the grasslands of the east to follow the evolution of armies that began life on the Asian steppe, and I have also tried to picture the ride across forest and marsh that brought so many European craftsmen to Moscow’s solemn, chilly, ritual-bound court. Each time the Kremlin was destroyed (it was not as eternal as it seemed), I have tried to discover how its masters saw the task of rebuilding and repossessing it. The French historian of places, Pierre Nora, would certainly have called the citadel a ‘site of memory’, but it has also been a place of action and change, a theatre where the dramas have been about the present even when they were disguised as evocations of the past.

I soon confirmed that the idea of predestined continuity was very old. I also came to understand how the familiar stories were conceived. From monks to court scribes and from Soviet propagandists to Putin’s favourite textbook-writers, there is nothing unusual in the idea that Russian courtiers should edit entire chapters of the past. They have usually done it in a calculated attempt to secure the authority of history in the name of a specific person, for the Russian state, far from enjoying stable and continuous leadership, has in fact suffered frequent crises at the heart of power. From princes and tsars to general secretaries and unelected presidents, many of its rulers have had only the slenderest of claims. To fend off chaos or potential civil war, therefore, their courts have worked to create a more or less convincing series of succession myths. Some appealed to religion, others invoked the people’s will, but history has been the basis of almost everyone’s tale. Ivan the Terrible’s advisors were among the most assiduous when it came to rewriting the old records – he was accorded divine authority as well as a fabulous pedigree – and their successors in the seventeenth century did the same job for the first Romanov tsars. The Bolsheviks, despite their modernizing rhetoric, called on the blessing of a pantheon of dead heroes; they also made full use of the symbolic possibilities of the Kremlin itself. Through crisis after crisis, the immediate circumstances were so troubled that the people, for their part, were prepared to welcome even an implausible pretender if they believed that he conformed to a nostalgic, almost fairytale, ideal. Life was so hard, and every future so precarious, that even the most ordinary peasant craved the certainties of vanished times. ‘The highest good in Muscovy was not knowledge but memory,’ James Billington decided half a century ago. ‘There was no higher appeal in a dispute than the important good and firm memory of the oldest available authority.’¹³

But memory, as we all know, is mutable. The Kremlin itself is a record of the past. It is also a sacred place, and its buildings once marked Moscow’s holiest sites. The rituals that formed round them, from celebrations of divine liturgy to coronations and royal funerals, were originally designed to embody the truth of a religious timelessness. Even in the age of saints, however, the ceremonial changed and mutated. From generation to generation, the meaning of the same words and the same processions evolved into radically new shapes. The buildings also did not stand unaltered, and they could be the most treacherous witnesses of all. If a wall was repainted, or a palace knocked down and rebuilt, it was as if its previous incarnation had never been. The cycle of familiar prayers returned, with lines of icon-bearing priests and courtiers in golden robes, but the setting had been modified so completely that it encouraged entirely new ideas, and (for want of a better term) false memories. With buildings, which are so concrete, the only past is what is there right now. It was a lesson that the Bolsheviks put to dramatic use when they destroyed the Kremlin’s ancient monasteries in 1929. As I would find, few people, even Muscovites, can now say where the buildings stood. Some even doubt that they existed, scratching their heads over the old photographs that prove the case.

This book, then, is about the Kremlin over centuries of time, but it is also very much about the Kremlin now. As I began to work on it, I quickly discovered the benefits of an association – even an unreciprocated one – with Russia’s ultimate elite. Although the Kremlin’s research staff work in conditions that are worse, if anything, than those of any university historian outside the walls, the general environment is spectacular. As I waved my hard-won cardboard pass at the armed guards at the Borovitsky Gate and swept past queues of early-bird tourists, I tasted the superiority that fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges surely enjoy every working day. I left the Moscow smog and traffic noise behind. Inside the walls, before the tour-groups really start, there is a pleasant quiet, and even now, in that land of diesel and cigarettes, the breeze carries a subtle perfume of incense. The library that I was heading for was high up, too, in an annex to the bell tower of Ivan the Great, which leaves the team who runs it without an inch of free space but means the crowds stay very far away.

Any sense of membership is relative, however, for this is not a normal research site. In the Kremlin, a visitor will see what she is meant to see. Locked doors are waiting even for the most persistent guest. To write this book, I had to travel well beyond that tower reading-room. The trail has taken me to Italy (home of the architects who designed the renaissance fort) and to libraries in the United States and Great Britain. When written records would not do, I have tracked down expert witnesses. Among the first people I interviewed were some of the politicians and diplomats who have known the Kremlin as a place of work. On one surreal evening, hours north of Stockholm, I met six of Sweden’s former ambassadors to Moscow at a single sitting (‘you will have concluded that every adult Swedish male is required to serve his nation in this way,’ the last one quipped when I expressed surprise). I have also talked to some of the architects and restorers who know the buildings inside out. Art historians have helped me to appreciate the icons and frescoes. Specialists in unfamiliar periods of history have answered questions and suggested new types of source. Tacking to and from the Moscow fortress over several years, I have even had a chance to admire the elusive falcons that are kept to kill the Kremlin crows.

One story seems to capture the excitement of the chase, however, and for me it was a kind of introduction in itself. Among my ambitions as a researcher, one of the hardest to achieve was any glimpse behind the obvious displays. As every archaeologist knows, you can learn a great deal about a culture, and especially a secretive one, by looking at the things it throws away. The Kremlin is not an obvious place to look for junk, but there was one occasion when I managed to visit the local equivalent of an attic. The chance came as an unexpected bonus when a busy woman who directs one of the Kremlin’s specialist research departments kindly offered to escort me round the palace on a private tour. The idea was to look at all the extant churches, and there are lots of them.

I arrived early on the appointed morning, for I loved to spend a moment in the empty fortress, watching subtle autumn light play on the old limestone. My guide, whose office was located in an annex of the Annunciation Cathedral, had not quite finished collecting her things, so we chatted as she made her thoughtful selection from a box of keys. I marvelled at each one as they were lined up on her desk, for keys like these should really have been forged from meteorites and guarded by a dragon. Some were long and heavy, others intricate, and most were so ornate that they were hard to balance in one hand. I had no time to test them all, however, before the curator had finished rummaging in her cupboard and produced a pair of pliers. It turned out that their purpose was to break the heavy seals that safeguard the contents of the palace’s numerous hidden chambers.

The first such seal awaited us at the top of a flight of polished marble steps. On the far side of an internal atrium, across a lake of gleaming parquet, we came upon a sealed pair of exquisitely wrought and gilded gates and beyond these, also locked and sealed, a pair of solid wooden doors. The prospect looked forbidding, but the pliers soon pulled off the wax, the long key turned with satisfying ease, and the wooden doors swung open to admit us to a seventeenth-century church with icons by the master Simon Ushakov. The first surprise was just how dim and even clammy the room seemed after the blazing chandeliers outside. We found the switch for the electric bulb, and by its unforgiving light I saw why the initial gloom had struck me with such force. Russian churches are meant to glint and shine, but this one had no gold or silver anywhere; the precious icons themselves were displayed in a crude-looking wooden iconostasis. It turned out that the antique silver with which the screen had once been finished, a work of fine art in its own right, had been stripped and melted down in Lenin’s time, ostensibly to buy bread for the people but in fact to keep the government afloat. As our tour took in more churches, more forlorn iconostases, and chambers unlit and uncanny in their emptiness, I discovered that the same fate had befallen treasures elsewhere in the palace. But there was still plenty to see, and for some hours we wove back and forth, pausing at one point to peer into the winter-garden that had once been Stalin’s cinema.

My new friend was generous with both time and expertise, but she hesitated before we descended the final set of stairs. ‘Don’t tell the fire department,’ she muttered. The corridor was narrowing; the carpets had not been replaced in a long time. We were on our way down to a fourteenth-century church that had been thought lost until it was rediscovered during building-work in the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. After more than six hundred years (so many wars, so many fires, so many redevelopment projects) there is not much left of the church itself (the walls are whitewashed), but there was a good deal else to see. Along the corridor and down the stairs were ladders, tins of paint, and broken chairs in awkward-looking stacks. There was a red flag rolled against a wall, a gilded table quarantined from some themed exhibition-space, dust sheets spattered with whitewash, a chunky radio. The expedition down through Nicholas’s palace, and Mikhail Romanov’s, Ivan the Terrible’s, and the renaissance foundations of far older chambers was not only an experience of going back in time, which is what journeys into undercrofts are all supposed to be. I felt more as if a selection of discarded versions of the Kremlin’s past had been assembled in a time-capsule, collapsing decade upon decade into one surreal space.

Russian history is full of destruction and rebuilding; the country has seen more than its fair share of change. For complex reasons, not always the same ones, the state, in a succession of different forms, has almost always managed to achieve priority at the expense of popular rights. At every moment of crisis, a set of choices has been made, often in the Kremlin, and always by specific people with a range of short-term interests to defend. There is nothing inevitable about this, and the discarded options testify to the fragmented nature of the tale. When today’s Russian leaders talk about the mighty state, the so-called traditions that they have dubbed ‘sovereign democracy’, they are making yet another choice. History has nothing to do with it, for precedent, as that red flag and those old chairs attest so well, is something that can be thrown out like last week’s flowers. There have been many Russian pasts. Once its sealed doors have been unlocked, the Kremlin need no longer seem the prop of tyrants that Custine reviled. In a culture that seeks to control history itself, it is an awkward survivor, a magnificent, spellbinding, but ultimately incorruptible witness to the hidden heart of the Russian state.


Foundation Stones

It feels like good poetic justice to begin the tale of an iconic fortress with a real icon. Generations of artists have worked in the Kremlin, so there are plenty of potential images from which to choose. Many of the finest were originally painted for the Kremlin’s own cathedrals and monasteries, including works by masters like Theophanes the Greek and his brilliant fifteenth-century disciple, Andrei Rublev. Serene, eternal, contextless, the saintly faces still gaze out at our frenetic world from an infinity of gold. In the age when they were made, time itself belonged to God, and sinful men (at least if they believed the message of the icon-painters’ art) could find salvation only if they shaped their brief years in the world to the pattern of heaven. But meditation and repentance have never been the Kremlin’s real point. A better image for its founding story, in a very different style, is Simon Ushakov’s masterpiece of 1668, The Tree of the State of Muscovy. It was and is a sacred work of art, but it is also a text about history.

Today, the icon’s message is so resonant that the original has been given pride of place in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Although it is modest in size, the painting has a whole wall to itself, and careful lighting on the gold creates an air of special reverence. You know before you even look that this is treasure, but the design comes as a surprise. At first glance the icon seems like a conventional tree of life, a motif that is more familiar from oriental rugs than Russian painting.¹ Closer inspection indeed reveals the stylized curling tree, but the fruit (or the blossom, for this is a magic plant) consists of cameos, including a large image of the Virgin and smaller ones of some of Moscow’s ruling princes, tsars and holy men. They are arranged in a succession, adorning branches that rise up towards the gates of heaven. As the Tretyakov’s own guidebook helpfully points out, Ushakov drew his inspiration from traditional representations of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.²

The picture gets even more interesting as you follow the tree to its root, for here imagined space gives way to real buildings. Like a frame within a frame, the fortified walls and towers of the Moscow Kremlin run along the painting’s base, and it is here that the icon’s principal historical characters are also to be found. In one corner, like an impresario presenting a particularly successful show, you see the immediately recognizable figure of Aleksei Mikhailovich Romanov (ruled 1645–76), the tsar of Ushakov’s time. But at the centre of it all, bending tenderly over their work, are the two men who have planted the tree. On the left, holding the medieval equivalent of a watering can, is a priest, and painted letters tell us that he is Peter, the leader of the early fourteenth-century Russian church. On the right, in charge of the plant itself, is a prince, Ivan I, who ruled Moscow for sixteen years from 1325 until his death in 1341.

You need to know some history to understand what Ushakov was trying to explain. Among other things, his painting is a political manifesto on behalf of his tsar. Like the tree, the picture is saying, Aleksei and his heirs have roots in Moscow’s past; like the pious tsars of former times – like the founder in the foreground, indeed – they are part of a continuous line whose work has always been to nurture and develop Russia’s soil. The case was worth arguing in Aleksei’s time because he was only the second member of his family to take the throne. In the early 1600s, during a prolonged civil war, Russia had almost disintegrated. When peace eventually returned in 1613, a council of citizens had been forced to scour the land for a new tsar. The accession of Aleksei’s father, Mikhail Romanov, was not quite the organic progress that the icon’s imagery suggests, in other words, and the semi-derelict Kremlin that he inherited was a far cry from the pristine red fortress that the painting shows. As his artist’s brush erased the memory of turmoil and murder, Ushakov was urging a new generation to believe that Moscow’s story was specially blessed. His Kremlin was no ordinary place. It had become the link between Russia and heaven, a space protected by the Mother of God herself.

But there is a further message in the founding scene, and it is represented by the planting of that tree. What the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia, Peter, and the newly appointed prince of Moscow, Ivan I, actually did, in 1326, was to lay the first stone of a new cathedral. It features in the icon as a soaring building with exquisite golden domes, but the accuracy of the detail was less important than the symbolism of an act that marked the moment when Moscow, with the Kremlin at its heart, had staked a claim to be the religious and political capital of the Russian world. At the time, the Kremlin was neither magnificent nor serene; its walls were a patchwork of mud and timber and its defences included stretches of noxious swamp. The world around it was at war, and its prince was not even the undisputed sovereign of Russia’s people. But some trees thrive in poor and even thirsty soils. When Ushakov wanted to find a root for his symbolic plant, he was not wrong to choose the ceremony of 1326. Ironically, moreover, the prince he painted, Ivan I, had been invoking history himself as he laid that first portentous stone. The Kremlin’s story, like that of Russia as a whole, is fragmented, and much has been lost. In the midst of the fires, revolutions and palace coups, however, the single genuinely continuous thread is the determination of successive Russian rulers to rewrite the past so that the present, whatever it turns out to be, will seem as deeply rooted and organic as Ushakov’s tree.

*   *   *

There is no reliable record of the Kremlin’s beginnings. The chronicles that form the most important written source for the period mention a princes’ residence in Moscow in 1147 and again in 1156, but no-one really knows who first built something fort-like on the hill above the Moscow and Neglinnaya rivers. The dates are contested, though the existence of a twelfth-century wall turns out to be a fact.³ Archaeologists digging in the 1950s found its remnants at a depth that corresponds to the correct decades, and though the finds are incomplete, and also disrupted by a lot of later construction, they are consistent with an earth and timber rampart, and a most impressive one. The giant logs alone would have been immovable. The structure enclosed a much smaller area than the current Kremlin, but it would have been impossible to breach. The wooden rampart was not the first building on the wedge-shaped hill, however, as further digging soon revealed. Beneath the earthworks, deeper layers hold bones. There are the ribs and limbs of pigs and cattle, scraps from centuries of meals, and the remains of horses and dogs. There are also the bones of game and fur-bearing animals, including elk, hare, beaver and wild boar. A spindle-whorl made of pink slate, the work of a craftsman in Kiev, testifies to trade links with the Dnieper valley, as do glass beads and metal bracelets in the coldest seams of earth.⁴ Deeper still there is silence.

The hill on which the Kremlin stands would always have had a lot of potential as a fort. It was easily defensible and well-supplied with workable timber, but in its early years it was remote even by Russian standards. While other regions in the north developed thriving ports and markets, this site stayed huddled in the forest, swamped by brambles and the fungal winter fog. The tapestry of oak and birch that stretched away on every side was so dense that it could easily swallow a whole army. Exactly that was said to have happened in 1176, when two rival princes and their retinues managed to clink past each other, the thud and jangle of their beasts dying to nothing in the web of leaves.⁵ The rivers were easier landmarks to follow, but even they were treacherous, and local hunters often cut a path through drier parts of the forest when they set out in search of elk and wild boar. Important routes could be kept open for a time by surfacing them with logs, an ancient technique that was still in use a thousand years later when Soviet troops laid their famous ‘corduroy roads’, but many early tracks into these woods were reclaimed in a season by the nettles, scrub and mud. Even if a traveller could find it for a second time, the chilly ground above the river-bend was not an obvious candidate for capital-city status.

The first people to settle here, hunters perhaps, were probably Finns, but no-one can be sure, for though successive rulers came and went, there was no state to count or name the tribes, and no obvious border. Unlike the Christians of the west or the Jews and Muslims to the south and east, the locals here cremated their dead, so there are no graves to excavate, and since they had no alphabet they left almost no words. But their traces survive in the names that these first people gave to the rivers and the wooded swamps; by most accounts (though Slavic patriots dispute the fact) Moscow itself is one.⁶ The name, derived from the Finnish, was almost certainly established before the first Slavs arrived, probably at the beginning of the 800s.

The newcomers belonged to a tribe called the Viatichi.⁷ Even in this bloody age they had a reputation for ferocity. They may, indeed, have held back the region’s development, since peaceful travellers would have hesitated before crossing their land. But their world was not entirely sealed off. The Moscow river that flowed through their territory carried wooden boats; it was one of several possible trade routes connecting the Volga with the west and north, and archaeologists now think that at least two important land-based routes also converged near the site of today’s Kremlin.⁸ Increasing traffic – boats, horses, even camels – had started to venture across the north-eastern European plain by this time. The little town beside the Moscow river was not on a main trade route, but nonetheless someone who passed through at this time managed to drop two silver coins, Islamic dirhams, one of them minted far away in Merv.⁹ Elsewhere in Russia more substantial quantities of silver, real hoards, have come to light, mostly of Muslim origin and mostly bearing tenth-century dates, a certain indication of the volume and the value of the region’s trade with the sophisticated civilizations of Asia and the Mediterranean.

The merchants must have come with lavish expectations. The caravans that headed south and east to Khwarezm, a market-centre deep in Central Asia, were loaded with the forest’s riches. ‘Sables, miniver, ermines, and the fur of the steppe foxes,’ an Arab geographer gloated. ‘Martens, foxes, beavers, spotted hares, and goats; also wax, arrows, birch-bark, high fur caps, fish glue, fish teeth [i.e. walrus tusks] … Slavonic slaves, sheep and cattle.’¹⁰ Accounts like this are reminiscent of much later European writings about Africa, and it turns out that the north-eastern European forest zone was indeed the dark continent of the ninth and tenth centuries. Like Africa in later times, it seemed to be a dangerous, exotic place, where fortunes waited for adventurers. Human slaves were one source of profit, for while Muslims and Christians were forbidden to enslave each other, the pagan Slavs were fair game.¹¹ The appetite for fur, meanwhile, seemed to be inexhaustible, and it was purchased by everyone from the Arabs and Turks of Asia to the Franks and Anglo-Saxons of Europe’s Atlantic fringe. The northern birchwoods and the taiga beyond them produced the best. If the goods could be brought to market – in Constantinople, maybe, or Bolghar, the great city on the Volga route towards the east – serious money, silver, was on hand to pay for them.

The profits on offer, and the many opportunities to set up customs posts and levy taxes on the precious freight, meant that the trade routes were worth fortunes, but the local Slavs were neither organized nor swift enough to take control of them. Instead, the prize fell to some bands of Vikings from Scandinavia, soon known to Greeks and Arabs as Rhōs. This used to be another controversial issue (Russian nationalists resented the suggestion that their founding princes might have come from somewhere else¹²), but the archaeological evidence around the Baltic is conclusive. By protecting some convoys, raiding others, and seizing any promising tribute, the rough freebooters became formidable regional players. From their first permanent settlement on Lake Ilmen, on navigable water near modern Novgorod, they had extended their network along the Dnieper and the Upper Volga by the middle of the ninth century. Like their relatives, the Vikings who raided Alfred the Great’s Wessex in the same decades, they were ambitious, warlike and incorrigibly mobile. In 860, they even managed to attack Constantinople, the heir of Rome, by closing on the great walled city from the sea. Before long, they had wrested the Dnieper capital of Kiev from the people known as the Khazars and mounted a succession of campaigns against Slav settlements as far east as the middle Volga. In a world where hundreds of miles separated the main ports and markets, and a good average speed for overland travel was no more than thirty miles a day, it was no easy matter to complete a long journey with a fleet of loaded craft. The evolution of the region’s intercontinental trade was an epic of endurance, skill and simple human greed.

It was also the first act of the Russian drama, the founding moment that begins all subsequent histories and myths. The Primary Chronicle, the first official record of the era, relates the story of a semi-mythical figure called Riurik, from whom the princes who ruled Russia’s cities would eventually derive their dynastic title, Riurikids. This man and his two brothers were said to have settled the territory round Lake Ilmen by invitation; the story goes that the perpetually warring local tribes of Slavs, Balts and Finns viewed strong outside authority as their one hope of peace.¹³ Invited or not, however, these Vikings – referred to now by most historians as the Rus – were not above consorting with the region’s older tribes. They also learned from their steppe neighbours, buying wooden hulls from Slav craftsmen and using local networks to procure the furs, wax, honey, hides and slaves with which to load them. Over time the Rus and native Slavs began to merge and even intermarry, sharing a landscape and its local gods and inventing new stories, in a common language, to make sense of their world. They were not yet a single people, but the foundations of a culture had certainly been laid.

It was always crucial for the warlike Rus to persuade their various neighbours to trade with them. Unfortunately, the wealthiest of these, the citizens of Constantinople, were horrified by stories of the Vikings to the north. The very harshness of their world, to say nothing of that recent sea-attack, made this particular group of pagans seem especially uncouth. Although Constantinople’s imperial government hired Vikings of its own to serve as mercenaries (they were the most resourceful sailors, after all, and staunch fighters to boot), undomesticated ones, whatever they called themselves, were regarded as barbarians, and at first the Rus were not permitted to enter the imperial capital at all. Instead, they had to trade through the Black Sea ports of Cherson and Tmutorokan, which meant sharing their profits with a swarm of middle-men.¹⁴ They finally secured a trade treaty with Constantinople in 911, but its terms made clear that Rus merchants were permitted to enter the city only if they kept to their own designated gate. They were also forbidden to arrive in groups of more than fifty at a time.¹⁵

The turning point came in the late tenth century. Dazzled by Constantinople’s gold and fascinated by its power, the pagan Rus adopted the Christianity of the patriarchs. It was a choice, and there were other options, not least the chance of allegiance to Rome. At the time, the gulf that lay between the two main Christian churches was not deep, but the Rus’ decision to align themselves with Constantinople’s version of the faith would shape their people’s future for centuries. The cultural impact was incalculable. It was the splendour and the beauty of eastern monotheism, apparently, that captivated Russia’s Norsemen. After a visit to Constantinople’s magnificent Church of the Holy Wisdom, a party of Rus emissaries was struck with awe. The building was a miracle, the liturgy spectacular. ‘We knew not’, one of them reported to his prince, Vladimir of Kiev, ‘whether we were in heaven or on earth.’¹⁶ Around 988 (no date can be entirely fixed), Prince Vladimir accepted baptism for himself, and extended the same boon to his subjects by ordering their mass immersion in the Dnieper. Just to make sure, he also had the pagan idols flogged and dragged about the streets before condemning them to death.¹⁷

Christianity brought the lands of the Rus into the orbit of a commonwealth. Constantinople was its centre, but the culture of Christian Kiev also inherited something from the religious traditions of Alexandria, Asia Minor and the Balkans. A veritable black-robed tide swept into Kiev after its official conversion, and the foreign monks brought much more than the principles of faith. Their other legacies included a new alphabet, a new set of ideas about the state, and a Christian calendar.¹⁸ Some were talented artists, and icon-painters, many of them Greeks, were soon producing images of saints. Christ and the Holy Virgin were universal, but the Greek church also favoured St John of the Ladder, St Anthony the Great, and St Andrew the First-Called, the apostle whom legend held to have foreseen the Christian glories that awaited Kiev. The Holy Wisdom, the divine spirit of the Word behind the Incarnation, was at the heart of all, for both Kiev and its wealthy rival, Novgorod, followed Constantinople in dedicating their most important cathedrals to it. The conversion of the Rus was not quite a revolution, for there had been little in the way of authentic culture to overturn, but it was certainly a stunning change, and Kiev’s princely government, with its imported faith and its veneer of Greek precepts, became a model for the eastern Slavic world.

None of these developments implied a future glory for the outpost on the Moscow river, however. The rulers of Muscovy were keen, much later, to find a precedent for their own court in eleventh-century Kiev, but at its best their case was flimsy. The prince in Simon Ushakov’s icon, Ivan I, was almost certainly descended from Vladimir, but the line was hardly direct. He had a claim to the Riurikid dynastic title, but he was only one of countless princes of that royal blood, many of whom ruled flourishing cities of their own.¹⁹ Ivan and Vladimir were separated by three hundred years, and though human affairs, when viewed from the twenty-first century, may appear to have moved slowly in the medieval world, three centuries was always a long time. It is roughly the same interval, for comparison, that separates today’s England from the one that sent the Duke of Marlborough to fight at Blenheim, and an even shorter gap divides our generation from the last to witness British rule in the American colonies.

The passage of time was not the only fact that separated Kiev and Moscow, either, for their geography, economies, political systems and even their diplomatic orientations were worlds apart, with Kiev looking southwards to the Black Sea and Moscow trading on the forest and its links to distant cultures on the Volga and beyond. But there was one important sense in which Moscow was truly Kiev’s heir. The Dnieper city had been the region’s first spiritual capital, a status that Constantinople confirmed when it chose Kiev’s Holy Wisdom to be queen of every Christian church in the vast territory. Byzantine clerics also proposed an ecclesiastical hierarchy to manage the Rus congregation. As a barbarian frontier, and a wild one at that, the princes’ world did not merit the creation of a separate patriarchate (there were only five of those on the planet²⁰), but the Rus did get a metropolitan (the next rank down), a man who acted as the link between the Slavic north and civilization as Constantinople defined it. The newly created job involved a lot of travel, for churches were being built at almost every prosperous princely court from the Baltic to the middle Volga, but the metropolitan’s official residence was Kiev, and on his death each one was laid to rest in or around the great cathedral there. The region’s spiritual geography shifted decisively, then, when the man in Ushakov’s icon, Metropolitan Peter, broke with convention by stipulating that his body should instead be buried in the cathedral that he and Ivan had founded in Moscow, nearly five hundred miles to the north-east.

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The journey that ended with that moment did not lead directly from Kiev but paused, for well over a hundred years, at Vladimir, a fortress-city even further to the east on the River Klyazma. The route was complex, and there is no easy way to understand it without making a detour into the elaborate world of inheritance law. Primogeniture, the system that kept property and titles in convenient straight lines in other kingdoms and in later times, was alien to the Rus princely clan. Their world was one of constant movement, and the heads of every major family could hope to claim a territory somewhere, ruling from its local capital with a small court and a retinue of warriors. But the clan insisted on dynastic hierarchies, including a convention that gave primacy, in political terms, to the princes of the most important cities of the time. In the Rus lands, as an expert on the region has observed, the royal family was viewed ‘as a corporate entity, and, as such, all had a claim on its constituent parts’.²¹ If it was a system of collective wealth-management, however, it was also subject to an expanding list of partners and sporadic violent take-over bids.

The kindest thing that could be said about the system of inheritance itself was that it guaranteed a healthy pool of male heirs. Instead of betting on a single son, custom (in a land where life-expectancy was short) put a prince’s brothers in line for his throne, so that an adult male (the younger brother of the senior prince) was likely to inherit ahead of second-generation royal infants. If a member of the older generation did not live to inherit a princely seat, however, his heirs might be barred, in perpetuity, from doing so. These rules were seldom absolute because there were so many opportunities to do away with rivals. To complicate inheritance still more, a title and associated lands and wealth were not necessarily conferred for life. The princely estates, or appanages, were arranged along a scale of notional desirability, and increasing seniority within the clan allowed each prince to move up, maybe several times, from a lesser to a greater one. Claimants with ambition could compete for the best lands of all, moving from city to city or facing their cousins in battle in a murderous game of musical chairs as death and promotion created vacancies. For more than a century, the mother-city of Kiev remained the prize that all desired, but though the contest for that throne was particularly fierce, the entire system could have been designed to generate feuds.²²

Until his death in 1015, Prince Vladimir of Kiev had kept the family in order, but his successors soon looked set to dissipate his legacy in fratricide. Steppe tribesmen, notably the energetic Polovtsy, were quick to take advantage, mounting increasingly damaging raids on any treasure that looked vulnerable (they sacked Kiev in 1061), and for a time it seemed as if the Rus might disappear like every other clan that had once ruled the Dnieper grasslands and the woods beyond. In 1097, the princes finally convened to shape a truce under the stern gaze of a magnate called Vladimir Monomakh.²³ In future, most of the lesser appanages would be attached to named, specific members of the clan. There was a distinction between the inner circle of senior princes and their humbler cousins, but most could now begin to build a stable, even heritable, estate. The changed conditions also encouraged the development of a new pole within the Slavic world. Though Kiev remained glorious, and fortunes could be made in the markets of Novgorod, the lands held by Vladimir Monomakh emerged as the most powerful of all.

Monomakh’s territory lay beyond the Moscow forest in a range of gently rolling hills whose rivers drained not south, to the familiar Black Sea, but eastwards to the Volga and the markets of the Asian plateau. The region may have seemed remote, but at a time when wealthy cities to the west had become vulnerable to nomad raids, its location was appealingly secure. The land was lightly settled in the days of Monomakh, but it also turned out to be reasonably fertile, and in trading terms it made a useful entrepôt between the Volga and the Dnieper. Here, then, on the banks of the rivers Nerl and Klyazma, a succession of powerful princes developed their own centre, first at Suzdal and then at a new fortress, Vladimir, possibly founded by Monomakh himself. The region grew prosperous and even opulent within decades, but Monomakh still opted to rule in Kiev when the chance arose, as did at least three of his sons. It fell to his grandson to change the geographical balance for good. Andrei Bogoliubsky followed the family example when he accepted the throne of Kiev in 1169 (thereby asserting his own primacy within the clan), but instead of settling there he chose to move his capital to Vladimir. In a system where no prince was equal, the Prince of Vladimir, not Kiev, would henceforth stand as lord above them all, and eventually the title would itself inflate. In years to come, a series of powerful and already wealthy men would willingly risk their lives to gain the right to call themselves Grand Prince of Vladimir.

Andrei’s next task was to create a city to eclipse Kiev. Power and glory came from God, so the prince’s scribes gave him the attributes of an Old Testament king. He was, they said, a Solomon in wisdom and a David in his virtue and his strength.²⁴ The most conspicuous demonstration of his kingship, however, was achieved through a massive programme of building. For years, the thin north-eastern light was to play on piles of earth and scaffolding as masons and craftsmen from all over twelfth-century Europe hastened to meet this ruler’s deadlines.²⁵ Because Andrei had resolved to outshine the metropolitan seat of Kiev, his cathedral in Vladimir had to be higher, at 106 feet, than the 93 feet of Kiev’s famous Holy Wisdom.²⁶ The finished building blazed with jewel colours. Sheets of gilded copper covered the cupola, while the white limestone itself was patterned with raised designs in red, blue and green as well as gold and gemstones. The pulpit inside glinted with more gold and silver, and sunlight coming through the vault scattered and pooled on many smooth-cut precious stones. When it came to exterior detail, Andrei favoured intricate carving, and other churches in his realm were decorated with menageries: lions and panthers, dogs, hares, deer and mythical creatures like the griffin and the sirin-bird.²⁷ The building programme continued with a walled palace and several ominous triumphal gates. In a landscape dotted with thatch and mud, the structures made the kind of statement that no-one, let alone a rival prince, could miss.

The confidence and swagger of it all hint at Andrei’s true qualities. God’s loyal servant was also a ruthless, vengeful and imperious man. No other kind, perhaps, could have constructed a city on this scale, and curt, decisive government was needed in an age of constant war. But Andrei’s cruelties added daily to the list of his enemies. In the summer of 1174, a rumour began to circulate that he was planning to get rid of certain discontented noblemen, and in particular the sons of a landowner from Moscow whom Andrei’s family had murdered and whose property had recently been seized. Another version, more appealing to later Muscovite chroniclers, held that the murdered landlord’s sons (avenging Muscovite heroes) took the initiative themselves. Either way, the conspirators agreed that Andrei had to die, and on the eve of 29 June a group of twenty of them broke into his bedchamber and hacked him to pieces.²⁸ The tyrant’s buildings did not fare well in the years to come. The great cathedral in Vladimir was damaged in a fire soon after his death, and his palace was eventually looted for treasure and, later, for stone. Only an arch and one tower still stand. A short distance away, the elegant church that Andrei commissioned to commemorate one of his most resounding victories, a building that once rose from a tiered white stone platform, has subsided into the riverside grass as if to cut the prince’s glory down to size.²⁹

Buildings, however, were not the only legacy that Andrei left. In their determination to prove the city’s special destiny, his advisors also created a new cult of the Mother of God. The festival of the Protection of the Veil, sponsored by Andrei himself, was meant to celebrate the Virgin’s special care for all Rus lands, but the prince’s men made sure that it was the new capital at Vladimir that topped the list.³⁰ In the same spirit, Andrei’s cathedral was not named for the Holy Wisdom, but for the Dormition of the Virgin, the death and miraculous resurrection of his city’s holy protectress. The prince endowed his building with numerous icons, many of which were painted to order, but he brought its centrepiece to Vladimir from Kiev. According to legend, this likeness of the Virgin and Child had originally been painted by St Luke, though in reality Andrei’s icon was probably less than a century old.³¹ Whatever its pre-history, however, it had a special place in the religious practice of the region, and its arrival in Vladimir marked an epoch. Even later, when it had been moved to Moscow and its story had been woven into legends like that of Ushakov’s tree, the miracle-working icon was still known as the Virgin of Vladimir.

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In Andrei’s lifetime, Moscow did not even rate a palace, though the cruel ruler seems to have commissioned a new set of walls. The settlement remained a military outpost and a centre for collecting tithes and taxes; successive princes of Vladimir hardly wasted an hour’s prayer on it. Most Orthodox believers were more concerned about the fate of distant, iconic Constantinople, which was sacked by the pope’s own men, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204. Rome’s insult to the eastern faith was widely felt.³² But no-one could have predicted how quickly that particular drama was to be forgotten. A storm was about to break directly on the Rus. The princes were preoccupied as usual with quarrels of their own, but traders on the old silk routes knew all about the powerful new force. An enemy that Europeans had not seen before crossed the Caucasus mountains from Persia in the summer of 1223. Its forces were composed of horsemen, many of them lightly armed, and they moved rapidly, too fast for the princes’ defending armies, whom they engaged and defeated in battle on the River Kalka before vanishing almost as swiftly as they had appeared. Nervous military experts in Kiev and the border city of Ryazan attempted to dismiss the skirmish as another steppe-based tribal raid, the sort of thing their cities had endured and overcome for centuries. In fact, it was a mission of reconnaissance.

The battle on the Kalka was followed, somewhere in the heart of Asia, by a period of detailed preparation and training. For the horsemen, such drill and planning had become routine. By the early 1220s, they had already humiliated Khwarezm and sacked Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand; they had crossed the Gobi desert and defeated the hosts of the Jin; and they had ridden westward from the Oxus to the edge of the Crimean steppe. The territory they controlled was four times larger than the Roman empire at its greatest extent, and most of it had been subdued in one lifetime. For such a host, the Dnieper region would have seemed like easy meat, but their plans received a setback in 1227 with the sudden death of their revered leader, Chinghis (or Genghis) Khan. The interval was relatively brief, however. In 1234, a council of the clans of the Mongol Horde, meeting in their capital at Karakorum twelve weeks’ fast ride east of the Volga, agreed to a sustained strike deep into the European plain. As ever, the planning was thorough. The Mongol army began by neutralizing the steppe people of the east and south, removing all potential allies of the Rus. In the winter of 1237, their troops, led by Batu-khan, a grandson of Chinghis, sprang their attack on towns and villages in the Russian north-east. The first to fall was Ryazan, which was overrun after a siege in late December. Batu’s horsemen then headed for Vladimir, which surrendered after bitter fighting in February 1238. Almost in passing, they sacked and burned Moscow, killing its governor and plundering its meagre treasure.³³ The wooden settlement and its fortress burned like a torch.

Away to the south-west, Kiev and its immediate neighbours remained untouched for two more years, but at the end of 1240 the great army returned, perhaps 140,000-strong, this time heading for the Dnieper.³⁴ By now the Mongols’ methods were familiar. They relied on good preparation, including excellent advance intelligence, and they launched surprise attacks with overwhelming force. They were expert in field and siege tactics, consummate archers, masters of Greek fire. They also knew the value of terror; the importance of visible, disproportionate and unforgettable brutality. Kiev and nearby Pereyaslavl and Chernigov fell that same winter, and in 1241 Batu moved west to Galich and onwards into Hungary. His army seemed invincible, and might have reached the Rhine or further if the death, in Karakorum, of the Great Khan, Ugudey, the third son of Chinghis, had not summoned the commander back to settle